This set comprises four cantatas for Pentecost Sunday on the first disc and three more for the Monday on the second. Generous measure indeed, but in fact the first disc lasts just under 70 minutes, and the second clocks out after not much more than three quarters of an hour. If that suggests in any way that these might be `minor' cantatas, then to quote an advertisement lately popular `it doesn't work like that'. The unswerving and optimistic faith that inspires Bach's cantatas is the same faith be they long or short, and the inspiration is the same inspiration. There are even a couple of well-known numbers here, one being the soprano aria `Mein glaeubiges Herze' in cantata 68, sometimes known in English as `My ever-faithful heart'; and the other is the first movement of the third Brandenburg concerto slightly modified as the opening sinfonia to cantata 174.
This leg of the pilgrimage through the Bach cantatas has taken Gardiner and his colleagues to the beautiful perpendicular church of the Holy Trinity at Long Melford in Suffolk, and two photographs are provided. No difference in the acoustics of the various locations seems to give the technicians of this series any problems, and the sound is admirably sympathetic and appropriate again. No hint of fatigue or routine affects the performers either, and the stylistic sense as well as the technical accomplishment is as admirable as ever. The alto is female this time, Nathalie Stutzmann, and that is how I prefer altos in general, but if there is a particular star among the four vocal soloists it is perhaps the tenor Christoph Genz who also contributes the short essay at the back of the set. Some of his music, such as the aria O Seelenparadies that he himself highlights in cantata 172, is exceptionally vivid, and he has the voice for that. Much of the instrumental work is exuberant in tone, as befits this stage of the liturgical year, and the playing is distinguished by both tact and gusto.
The production is to the standard format of this series, presented as a sort of book - an attractive format but one that calls for care in removing the discs. There is Gardiner's standard introduction as always, and another of the long and illuminating essays that he wrote for himself by way of a journal of the project's progress. One very odd sign of what may have been strain has crept in this time however. He protests in understandable exasperation at commentaries which make a foolish fuss over Bach's self-borrowings, but adds the quite gratuitous statement `You'd have thought that Handel, with his habit of plagiarising other men's themes as starter fuel when the muse refused to co-operate, would have presented a juicier target.' We are not supporting rival football teams in the first place. In the second place, it can hardly be news to this erudite musician that for half a century and more there was an entire industry dedicated to identifying Handel's borrowings, real or supposed, toiled at by writers who had little or no opportunity to hear either the Handel works in question or the alleged sources of this or that `theme'. Gardiner must know better than I do that there has been competent and methodical modern scholarship that makes sense of this issue, and that the matter is not properly expressed in these terms, which would have been unperceptive in 1900 let alone 2000.
That, plus the error in describing the duet Nichts kann mich erretten in cantata 74 as an alto aria, are the only two trifling faults that I find with this set. The whole series is a great and awe-inspiring labour of love, undertaken in support of a greater. These artists' pilgrimage is one in whose steps I feel honoured to follow.Read more ›
It is always the exception that interests the Devil and nor does his enmity ever sleep. Using his hateful powers, he sped in time to the presbytery of Father Melchizedek - the High Priest of HIP - seized his copy of Jeggy performing Bach's cantatas (Volume 26) and then travelled to Spain. The year was 1615 or thereabouts.
The sage Cide Hamete Benengeli relates that it was past midnight and our friends were exhausted: Don Quixote was weary from his labours and prayers (how was he to rid Lady Dulcinea of Toboso of her enchantments?) whereas Sancho, having vanquished many a sausage, was sound asleep. Rocinante and Dapple were standing nearby. There was no moon. All of a sudden, the Devil played the third movement of `Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten', BWV 74, as loudly as he could where Derek Lee Ragin screeches out the glory of God in a high whinny.
At this, Sancho began to tremble as if he had taken quicksilver and the hair of Don Quixote's head stood on end. But the Knight regained his courage and whispered "This, Sancho, beyond a doubt must be a great and most perilous adventure and I shall need to display my valour and courage!"
He leapt to his feet and buckled his sword.
"Now come what may, I stand ready to do battle with Satan in person!"
Sancho dashed over and crouched under Dapple, setting the armour on one side of him and the ass' pack-saddle on the other side and trembling as much from fear as his Master from excitement. Encamped in this citadel, he commented,
"Master, it sounds as if they have captured a fellow Knight-Errant and they have him on the rack - and they are burning his private parts with red-hot irons like the Holy Brotherhood of Inquisitors!"
Don Quixote nodded his head.
"Yes, the Chronicles of Amadis of Gaul relate that once he fell into the hands of brigands and was tortured in such a fashion. We can only pray for this unfortunate Warrior of the Cross until we are able to sight his whereabouts and relieve him of his torments!"
With relish, the Devil then turned to the opening track of `Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt', BWV 68. This cacophony threw Don Quixote into some degree of alarm and struck fear into Sancho's heart.
"Carter, coachman or devil," the Knight shouted back into the darkness, "tell me instantly who you are and prepare to face my holy wrath!"
Truly there was cause for alarm. The clipped phrasing and anaemic strings were monstrous but no combat eventuated. Mischievously, the Devil turned to opening chorus of `Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Salten!', BWV 172. The din brought a smile to the face of the Knight.
"Sancho, Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have wished! There is an army of giants coming our way, accompanied by the pomp and circumstance of timpani and trumpets. I intend to do battle with them and take their lives. It will be a great service to God to wipe such a wicked brood from the face of the earth!"
Listening more closely, his servant begged to disagree:
"Master, it sounds less like an army of giants and more like a handful of troubadours singing as best as they can with hunger in their stomachs and no great talent. Those drums and trumpets sound tinny and they're not being played with any real zest!"
His master ignored this comment. "I am equal to a thousand. Let them come! For God has put it into my heart to embark on this unparalleled adventure! Behold their cohorts advancing towards us in full battle array!"
"How can you see, Sir? The night is so dark there is not a star to be seen in the sky!"
"It is clear that you are not experienced in battles and adventures," Don Quixote growled. "If you are afraid, go away and say your prayers while I advance and engage them in fierce and unequal combat!"
Before this assurance was converted into mighty deeds, the Devil turned to the finale of the aforementioned cantata and threw their plans into confusion.
"Does it not sound," Don Quixote muttered, "like they praising some strange deity - perhaps the Devil himself - in a barbarous tongue? But why are they undertaking this unholy rite so limply? Surely their Master, evil though he be, deserves a tithe of enthusiasm! Or perhaps this is a madrigal!"
The Sinfonia of `Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute', BWV 174, followed in quick succession. While Don Quixote was lost for words, his servant was quick to speak up.
"Master, someone is attempting to fool us in the darkness. Those fiddlers sound like the sextet from our village - except they are even less schooled than usual. And they are being accompanied by a cuckoo bird if my ears do not deceive me. There is less devilry here than what you think!"
At this, Satan grew tired of his machinations and returned back to the casements of Hell. Soon, all the pair could hear was a nearby owl.
"Good Sancho, Wise Sancho, Christian Sancho," Don Quixote counselled, "let us leave these miserable phantoms and return to our quest for better and more heroic adventures! We shall discuss this escapade at greater length in the morning. Let us retire to sleep in hope for a better day!"Read more ›